The simple answer is because it is a trail blazing hip-hop music festival, but there is more to it than that truth.
For long-time readers of Daily Chiefers, there may be a statistically unlikely, yet remotely possible chance that the deep recesses of your long term memory surface a faint recollection of photos that we posted in 2013 after experiencing Rhymesayers Entertainment’s annual Soundset Festival in Minnesota. If not, or if you’re relatively new here, let me tell you that year in Canterbury Park was, in hindsight, a historically impressive amalgamation of hip-hop’s sub-genre prime representatives, put together for a single, memorable day of performances. That is why I am going back this year.
Justifying another pilgrimage to the Midwest, for the purpose of seeking out live hip-hop music, requires setting the scene from 3 years prior. Picture an inspired Atmosphere rallying their hometown Twin Cities crowd as headliners, having just before received top billing support from a particular kinetic Mac Miller. I saw a then bucket list set involving Snoop Dogg flexing legend status, which was mixed in between the lyrically charged Brother Ali and party-inclined Juicy J both setting it off. While almost no one can rock a stage like Ali, it will also forever be impossible to wipe my memory of the audience when “Bandz A Make Her Dance” dropped at a very high volume. It was 2013 after all, and the infectious hit of the year turned a sea of 30,000 heads into a blissfully reckless energy swarm completely under the commanded of the bounce. I think my camera still has champagne spray on it from J’s on-stage antics.
That year also saw a powerfully animated set from indie icon Tech N9ne, and a Habits & Contradictions-era Schoolboy Q conducting what could be considered a sing-a-long to a field of newly dedicated TDE fanatics (I was, of course, one of those shamelessly reciting every bar from “Hands on the Wheel”). Joey Bada$$ shut it down as one would expect the Brooklyn native to do, but highlight sets also came from the likes of an Apollo Brown & Guilty Simpson collaborative tour de force, and a then fledgling Open Mike Eagle showing very noticeable signs of pen game greatness. Honestly, it would be easy to tally off another paragraph of seriously dope moments that were squeezed into one day of festival programming, but this is all going somewhere we need to get to in the present.
Other than being a sucker for personalized nostalgia, I present this broad stroke recap of the lineup that year in order to frame the purposeful diversification that goes into curating the lineup for Soundset by the Rhymesayers team. It would be easy to just put their whole label on the stage all day, and that would actually be dope J-Bird, but instead the event has become synonymous with providing an eclectic smorgasbord of rappers that might on the surface appear randomly pushed together in an unsuspecting hip-hop metropolis. Without having the gift of first hand experience, I can understand that it might be challenging to see Soundset for what it is: a well crafted and thoroughly planned assortment of talent presented in clever succession for a demographic that is self-classified as open minded. Yet, that is exactly what it is.
It is not about selling tickets. They already do that part of it quite well. It is about maintaining a reputation as one of the most sought after hip-hop festivals of the year for hip-hop purveyors and purists. To the point that someone like myself will exercise time, money and energy to jet set half way across the country just to bare witness to the persevering mythology.
Fast forward, and the 2016 iteration of Soundset immediately turns heads by calling upon the likes of the legendary Roots crew and the ever impressive Common to set the bar high for headliner status alongside modern era super stars A$AP Rocky and Future. That isn’t juxtaposition. That is balance. That is a bold attempt at bringing together fans of a multitude of rap’s sounds in order to encourage sonic exploration and celebrating the collective evolution of hip-hop music.
While Atmosphere will of course be included in the headliner positioning – it is their party after all – the duo’s humility off the mic extends to performing before all but one of the aforementioned artists. That type of contagious love for the craft, plus forward thinking view of the game and its players, gives way to what fills out the rest of the billing. For every Machine Gun Kelly on the list there is also a Pharoahe Monch. Home-label representers Prof, Blueprint and Aesop Rock (joined by Stones Throw emcee extraordinaire Homeboy Sandman to perform Lice) receive much deserved nepotism, but standout newcomers Anderson .Paak & The Free Nationals, Mick Jenkins, Goldlink and A-F-R-O will also get a chance to prove themselves as equal opportunity outsiders.
Somehow even this deep into name dropping there is still hype-worthy rap mainstays like the tag teaming emcee/producer wizards Murs & 9th Wonder, Black Hippy’s most overtly underrated member Jay Rock, tried-and-true hometown collective Doomtree, and Odd Future’s very own Domo Genesis. Not to mention buzzworthy acts like Post Malone, Raury and Pouya that will be my personal Litmus test for the new audible wave’s ability to shine in the live setting.
If the 4 stages offering a 10 hour music array do not quite convince you that something special is going on here, then a focus on the core pillars of hip-hop culture and history might drive it home. The first ever open mic at the festival will be introduced this year. There is an entire tent dedicated to a b-boy and b-girl freestyle showdowns. A massive wall is erected for a proper graffiti showcase featuring a deep selection of noteworthy artists. A production showcase (shout out Greg Grease), custom car show, and skateboard competition are also all present and accounted for inside the festival grounds.
In an era of music festival saturation, one that habitually placates hip-hop fans by injecting a couple of rotating acts here and there, Soundset has institutionalized a sense of integrity for the culture that birthed the music it curates. That isn’t a level of authenticity that can be fabricated or faked, and if there is an indie event worthy of the descriptor of realness, this might be the one. Stay tuned to our pages and social spheres for a vicarious dose of Soundset Festival on Sunday, May 29th, 2016 at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds. I have a feeling you will get what I have been trying to articulate if you follow my journey through the 9th year of this hip-hop performance mainstay this weekend.